WASHINGTON — President Bush moved Wednesday to fill the second of two vacancies in his Cabinet, announcing he would nominate Edward T. Schafer, a former Republican governor of North Dakota, to be the secretary of agriculture.
Schafer, if confirmed by the Senate, would be responsible for winning congressional approval of an updated farm bill, which would have a broad reach across the economy and is one of the top remaining elements on the administration's domestic agenda.
"With Ed's leadership, we will work with Congress to pass a farm bill that provides farmers with a safety net, protects our lands and the environment, and spends federal tax dollars wisely," Bush said at a ceremony in the White House Roosevelt Room, with Schafer at his side.
One day earlier in the same setting, Bush announced he was nominating retired Lt. Gen. James B. Peake as secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Schafer, 61, served two terms as North Dakota's governor, elected by a wide margin in 1992 and reelected in a landslide four years later. His tenure coincided closely with Bush's governorship in Texas.
The announcement won a friendly reception from a key senator, agriculture committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and both of North Dakota's senators, also Democrats: Byron L. Dorgan, whom Schafer once unsuccessfully challenged for a House seat, and Kent Conrad.
Harkin singled out the new five-year farm bill and Schafer's views on it as a top issue in considering the nomination.
The agriculture committee recently finished work on its version of the $288-billion measure; the House has completed work on its own version. The president, who wants to reduce subsidies that have been central to farm programs for more than half a century, has threatened to veto the House legislation.
Schafer was joined at the White House by former Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, who resigned in September to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel, who is not seeking reelection.
Beyond its work with farmers, the Agriculture Department, with more than 100,000 employees, is responsible for the national forests, school food programs, opening export markets for American beef and produce, and, increasingly, energy programs dealing with ethanol and other biofuels.
Schafer said that he also recognized another mission: "The preservation of a way of life that I believe is the foundation of this country."
Nearly 24% of the North Dakota workforce is made up of farmers, ranchers or others with work related to the farm economy, according to the White House.
"Ed's passion for agriculture has deep roots," Bush said.
A graduate of the University of North Dakota, Schafer is the grandson of Danish immigrants who were farmers.
"Ed has always kept their story close to his heart. And they'd be proud to see their grandson rise to become our nation's top agriculture official," the president said.
As governor, Schafer worked to revive rural towns by using technology to improve their access to education, healthcare and economic development, and became involved in the initial work of North Dakota's biofuels industry.
His family owned the Gold Seal Co. until 1986. He was president of the household products company, which his father founded, until it was sold.
Until recently, he was chief executive of Extend America, a wireless communications company based in North Dakota.